The Cat in the Hat Is Right About Parenting

The most libertarian answer to the question of what it means to be a libertarian parent is that there is no answer.


Why do parents still read The Cat in the Hat to their children? The cat gives terrible advice, after all. His risk assessments are poor. He urges reluctant kids to break rules. His games are unstructured and seemingly pointless; "UP-UP-UP with a fish" is certainly not going to get anybody into college. He's a stranger who has broken into their house while they are unsupervised, bringing unsuitable companions with him. All in all, the book seems to cut against everything today's parents stand for.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss now functions as the Grimm Brothers once did, offering fantastical tales of transgressive horror swathed in comforting repetition. As in classic fairy tales—and even in their Disney adaptations—parents must be gotten out of the way before kids can come into their own. All the truly epic child heroes are orphans. For Seuss, it's enough to send mom out of the house on a rainy-day errand. Whatever magic the cat has, it is only possible in the spaces between supervision and routine, outside of the panopticon that modern parenting produces.

How can we make space for that kind of magic when cultural paranoia and increasingly invasive policies seem to require around-the-clock child surveillance and engagement?

The most libertarian answer to the question of what it means to be a libertarian parent is that there is no answer. A theory of the proper role of the state needn't dictate a theory of the family. There is no inherent hypocrisy in the idea of a libertarian who is a strict parent, for instance. There are as many ways to be a parent as there are to be a human being.

But libertarians tend to be more predisposed to certain ways of thinking about parenting. On the fundamental level, if you think the essential virtues are individualist rather than collectivist, you might seek to raise children who embody or share those virtues, as J.D. Tuccille does, by teaching them about the perils of trusting politicians and equipping them with practical skills that enable independence.

When I was young, my parents imposed a tax on snack assistance—though their agenda was more gastronomical than ideological. If I wanted help opening a bag of chips, for instance, a "tax bite" went to an adult. Same deal on sodas and drippy ice cream cones. You could take this idea further: An economist dad once told me he gives his kids an allowance and then immediately revokes a third of the cash in order to teach them the harsh reality of taxation. None of which is to say that that goal of libertarian parenting should be to create more libertarians. That way lies madness: Kids have a way of ferreting out their parents' most deeply held wishes and defying them.

More broadly, people who see the appeal of using economic principles to guide decision making might appreciate authors like Bryan Caplan or Stephen C. Miller, who suggest a quantitative approach to deciding what parenting interventions are most likely to yield results. Their answer—that most parents are overinvesting in low-payoff activities and interventions for their kids at the cost of their own short- and long-term happiness—provides a welcome counterweight to the dominant parenting culture.

The term "helicopter parenting" invokes the idea of hovering—of vigilant guards laying down covering fire as their kids advance in life. But the Danish variant, curling forœldre, is even more apt. In the sport of curling, one member of the team launches the stone while others smooth a carefully chosen path across the ice with brooms. Curling is also a zero-sum game. You win by knocking the other team's stones out of the center of the target.

The comical panicky motion of the curling sweepers is reminiscent of the lunge of a parent trying to grab an iPad from a kid who's had too much "screen time" or to take a "problematic" young adult novel from an impressionable teen. It is perhaps best embodied by rich people engaging in elaborate frauds to get their children into prestigious colleges.

Parents who are naturally skeptical of dominant narratives might look again at any statistic that causes mass panic, as free-range mom Lenore Skenazy urges us to do. In her conversation with sociologist Frank Furedi, she notes that "even some grandparents who let their children walk to school and play outside now think that letting the grandkids stand on the sidewalk in front of the house to wait for the bus is too dangerous."

But letting go can be complicated in a country where the state is constantly closing in on aspects of private life. As Small Animals author Kim Brooks discovered after she let her 3-year-old watch his tablet in a parking lot while she ran into Target, the combination of overvigilant citizens and overcautious law enforcement can spell disaster.

Or consider the wisdom of Brown economist Emily Oster, whom I interviewed for a recent Reason Podcast about her new book Cribsheet (Penguin Press). When she explained how journalists and parents tend to exaggerate the universal benefits of choices such as breastfeeding or co-sleeping, I cheerfully suggested there were no "right answers." She gently corrected me: "This book doesn't say there's no right answer. It just says that your right answer isn't the same as somebody else's."

But being different is hard. Going against the grain is exhausting. Ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities live this reality every day, as do people who are not neurotypical or people who just have unusual preferences.

This simple and often overlooked fact is one reason pluralistic, tolerant societies are also innovative societies. When people who are different, whether by birth or by choice, don't have to spend all their energy assimilating or hiding or carving out space for themselves because they fear for their lives or livelihoods, they can and often do wind up leveraging those differences. Looking at the world through a different lens can reveal new ways to solve someone else's old problems, it can produce great art, it can break a technical logjam, or it can make a lot of money. Societies that have room for individual difference—ones that allow personal and economic freedom—make space for the chaotic magic of the market.

Social pressure and legal sanctions can overlap in complicated ways. "Go outside and play" is actually a punishment if there are no other kids out there to play with. And there is a small but real threat that it will bring Child Protective Services knocking at your door. Miller, Oster, Skenazy, and many others urge us to do a bit of math: The likelihood of those cello lessons paying off, the odds of a kidnapping, the chance that an extra hour of TV will rot a kid's brain. But there are also the odds of a bad legal outcome to consider, and properly estimating those risks is just as difficult.

Obviously, Seuss' fish is right when he warns that Mother will not like the cat's suggestions. His advice may be sound when he implores the kids to "tell that Cat in the Hat you do NOT want to play!" The cat is not even remotely sensible. In the end—despite his reassurances about the success of his up-up-up plans—all the things do fall, including the fish. The messy, weird game wasn't a maximally constructive use of the children's rainy-day hours.

But neither was it catastrophic. The kids had fun. The house wasn't destroyed. They learned something important about the payoff of pushing the envelope from time to time. And Mom got her errands done.

Be the parent, by all means. But also, when you can, be the Cat.

Have no fear.